Ken Gun Min summons race, queer identity in fantastical LA-inspired art

Ken Gun Min's '2022-1988' (2023) / Courtesy of the artist, Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul and London

“Maximalist” doesn’t even begin to describe the lusciously chaotic landscapes that artist Ken Gun Min conjures up on his canvas.

Seemingly plucked straight out of a wild daydream, his fantasyland brims with swirling clouds, lush flora and sensual portraits that captivate the eyes and refuse to let them go.

For some, these scenes, summoned via a mix of Western oil paints with Korean pearl pigments and adorned with silk embroidery threads, beads and vintage textiles, may as well be a utopia and nothing more.

Yet beneath their fantastical facade lies a tapestry of repressed narratives — queer identity, non-white masculinity, race and cultural assimilation — inspired by the Seoul-born artist’s own experiences as a gay Asian first-generation immigrant in Los Angeles, California.

Min’s surreal paintings produced within the last three years, dubbed the “LA Trilogy,” reimagine the neighborhoods of his adopted hometown — primarily Silver Lake, Westlake and Koreatown. He transforms familiar neighborhoods into spaces where personal memory and queer history intertwine, highlighting the often-overlooked narratives of marginalized communities.

In “13 Missing Ladies,” he retells the story of transgender women who were violently murdered in the MacArthur Park area in 2020, just a few blocks casinositekingcom from his residence. The incidents involving these individuals, many of whom were low-income undocumented immigrants, failed to gain extensive media coverage and even, sometimes, proper police investigation.

“I summoned the bodies of these invisible women as 13 mushrooms, so that their legacy can be memorialized and live on in my work,” the artist told The Korea Times in a recent interview.

Portions of these otherworldly mushrooms are embellished with threads and beads — materials that were deconstructed from the dress of a drag queen he encountered at a nearby thrift store.

“I wanted to use these elements, once likely a physical part of the LGBTQ+ community, and bring them to the commercial realm of art fairs and galleries beyond the drag stage,” he said. “My position as an artist — and not a historian or a politician — allows me the freedom to document such a story in my own fantasy-oriented way.”

It’s also part of his strategic approach to engage a broader audience as he allures them into the wonderland he has crafted through brushstrokes and hand embroidery, seamlessly introducing them to these underrepresented, perhaps discomforting, narratives.

In “Ambiguous Yoga Club,” where two muscular men are seen grappling with each other, Min turns LA’s Runyon Canyon Park frequented by celebrities into a sexually suggestive site of queer liberation. The pose of the two figures draws from multiple art historical references from both the East and the West — including the Greek statue of Hercules wrestling Antaeus and an early 20th-century woodblock print depicting Japanese and Russian soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War.

Such a piece would remain in dialogue with a series of his sensual portraits of East Asian and Southeast Asian gay males in the surrounding neighborhoods, who are often subject to emasculation or complete exclusion from representation.

The painter’s exploration of different historical chapters of LA even intertwines with his memories of his homeland, as witnessed in an ongoing group exhibition, titled “Wonderland,” at Lehmann Maupin Seoul.

His “1992, Western Ave.” draws parallels between the fraught racial and ethnic tensions that fueled conflicts between Black and Korean Americans during the 1992 riots and those in present-day Korea, where discrimination and abuse of migrant workers persist.

And in “2022-1988,” Min revisits his bitter childhood memories from nearly four decades ago. In time for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which was viewed by the government as a chance to showcase to the world a new cultural image of Korea beyond its war-torn past, young children were forced to practice for the game’s opening ceremony, with some passing out from the stifling summer heat. By juxtaposing the death of the tiger, the official mascot of the Seoul Olympics, with that of LA’s celebrity mountain lion P-22, the artist visualizes the pain shared by these overlooked children.

“It hasn’t been long since I ventured into the realm of contemporary fine art as a full-time creative,” Min remarked.

He studied art history and Western painting in Seoul before moving to San Francisco in 2001, but ended up pursuing a master’s in production design for motion pictures and TV at the Academy of Art University.

It was a “rather straightforward” decision made to support his immigrant status — the one that eventually helped him land a job with Lucasfilm at Skywalker Ranch.

For a decade as a production designer, he helped develop the color, texture, lighting and look of the Star War franchise films, including the distinctive leathery appearance of Yoda’s skin.

“While my career flourished during this time, I consider the period a bubble in my life. Living within that privileged bubble, I was unable to see beyond its confines,” he noted.

It wasn’t until he quit his job and relocated to Los Angeles in 2013 that he was struck by the reality of living as a first-generation immigrant without a stable source of income or insurance.

It took Min several years of efforts — including doing artist residencies in Zurich and Berlin — to channel his own experiences and identity into a creative voice of his own that began to resonate with the art world.

“I believe that for an artist to be authentic, they must begin with their own story. However, what’s important is that it doesn’t end there. It should be digestible and shareable by others to foster more meaningful dialogues,” he said.

One method he has chosen to achieve this goal is by incorporating craft and threading elements onto his canvas — art forms long devalued as “low art” due to their association with femininity and domesticity.

“I wanted my work to transcend the boundary between craft and contemporary painting, paying tribute to countless women who have helped me discover myself,” said the artist, emphasizing the central role of women’s care labor in immigrant communities.

This idea of solidarity and connection extends to the source of some of the vintage textiles and beads that find their way into his final work — sentimental items once belonging to the deceased, such as half-finished cross-stitch projects, cardigans and brooches, which are gifted to him by anonymous bereaved family members moved by his art.

Moving forward, Min hopes to continue uncovering the narratives that get lost and forgotten within the entrenched dynamics of power on his canvas — but in a more visceral manner and with greater room left for his craft materials.

“I approach each opportunity to express myself as if it were my last. Since I’ve been fortunate to be given this platform at present, I want to talk about things that truly warrant attention,” he said.

Two of Min’s richly-textured paintings are on view at Lehmann Maupin Seoul’s “Wonderland” until Feb. 24. His first solo museum exhibition, “The Lost Paradise,” opens on 카지노사이트킹 March 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Colorado.

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